St. Clair Drake lecture focuses on African American history, WPA in Illinois
By Kevinisha Walker
The St. Clair Drake Center welcomed University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign Professor Brian Dolinar to speak about his book on the writings and lives of African Americans during the early 20th century last week.
Dolinar, scholar of African American literature and culture from the Depression Era, compiled writings of African Americans and put them into a book called “The Negro in Illinois: The WPA Papers.”
The writings came about as a result of the Works Progress Administration, a federal government agency created as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The narratives from the compilation were composed between 1935 and 1942. Seventy years later, Dolinar brings the never-before-published works together in one book.
“These works sought to charter history of black militancy and self assertion among blacks in Illinois,” Dolinar said. “Folks saw the great need for African American history to be written at this critical time.”
Emeritus Professor of U.S. History Christopher Reed compares Dolinar’s aggregation of the writings to Howard Carter’s unearthing of King Tutankhamen’s tomb.
“The retrieval of the papers was a major accomplishment,” Reed said. “Here, you have a counterweight of great scholarly works to the myths that have pervaded American scholarship for decades.”
Dolinar also said that “The Negro in Illinois” was not written by historians, it was written by literary types. “The authors were trying to use history and sociology to tell a story, a particular kind of story.”
Some of the authors of the WPA papers include Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Arna Bontemps and Jeff Conroy. Bontemps and Conroy, black Harlem Renaissance poet and white proletarian writer respectively, served as co-supervisors of “The Negro in Illinois” writers.
Because some believed that African Americans played a minor role in American history, “The Negro in Illinois” authors wanted to provide a counter narrative to that belief, Dolinar said. “Instead, they presented the negro as an active, historical agent.”
Chapters in the book discuss black life in ways that weren’t done before during the 20th century.
Some of the writings in the book served as travel guides, Dolinar said, “providing tourists with places to visit and important things in Chicago.”
“[The stories] had the aim, for the first time, to show a comprehensive view of African American life [in Chicago],” Dolinar said.
Dolinar said that when the first guide books came out, they told an all-white history.
“The Illinois state book had about 1,200 pages [during the Depression Era], and only six were dedicated to African Americans,” he said.
Other chapters talk about various aspects of black life, population trends during great migration, housing restrictions, health conditions, black folklore and culture.
To gather the works for all 29 chapters, Dolinar had to go to libraries in Springfield, Ill., Washington, D.C., Syracuse, N.Y., and Chicago.
While Reed believes that “The Negro in Illinois” is a significant work, he has minor criticisms about the work, too. “My criticism is with some of the chapters … the strongest chapters are found in the back.”
The chapters toward the end of Dolinar’s book are on black culture including literature, music and theater.
“You’re not going to find this information in any other book,” Reed said.
Under the WPA, a group of projects were created, including Federal One.
Federal One had four programs: Federal Theater Project, Federal Music Project, Federal Arts Project and Federal Writers Project, the last of which was responsible for employing many African Americans artists and writers who could not find employment.
Margaret Rung, professor of history and director of the Center for New Deal Studies, talked about the historical context of the WPA papers at the lecture.
“Those programs were responsible for making the 1930s a decade of extraordinary cultural dynamism despite the Depression,” Rung said. “There was a major amount of cultural work done during that decade at a time where people were most desperate for work.”